The first phase of the annual assault on the Cheltenham Festival prize money begins this afternoon in Surrey. Time was when the Imperial Cup, first run in 1907, was easily the most important hurdle prize of the season and no pre-war Champion Hurdle winner came close in ability to Trespasser, hero of the Sandown feature from 1920-22. Nowadays, though, the venerable contest is merely the hors d'oeuvres before the feast.
There is a record £3.56m on Prestbury Park's groaning board next week, which make's this afternoon's prize of just under £40,000 look like a single canape. But, of course, should the winner go on to take any race at the Festival, there is a bonus of £75,000.
One stable has proved something of a masterchef at providing that particular recipe, that of the Pipe family, pere et fils. Martin trained six Imperial Cup winners, of whom Blowing Wind and Olympian claimed the extra cash. David has won the last two renewals with Gaspara and Ashkazar; the former followed up in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle and the latter beat all bar Crack Away Jack in the same race.
Today the favourite Mr Thriller, near the top of the handicap, and Seven Is My Number, who made the cut with none to spare, represent Pond House. But before the conspiracy theorists leap atop a grassy knoll, what might happen in the future is not the prime concern of any trainer, even the shrewd cookies at Nicholashayne. It is hard enough to win one competitive handicap, let alone two within six days with the same horse (as well the philanthropic sponsors Paddy Power know) and today's first prize is the bird in the hand.
Mr Thriller (3.10), a four-year-old half-brother to Gaspara, holds five Cheltenham entries, the Supreme Novices, Ballymore Properties, Triumph and Fred Winter hurdles as well as the Coral Cup. He comes to today's fray unbeaten in his two runs since joining Pipe after five outings in his native France, with the form of his success at Fontwell last month boosted since by success for the runner-up and third.
"He's done everything right," admitted his trainer. "And although he is high enough in the weights, he does get the four-year-olds' allowance. he looks progressive and he won't have any worries about the hustle and bustle of a big field."
Seven Is My Number has not raced for more than a year. "He's had problems all his life," added Pipe of the seven-year-old, "and has been difficult to train. But he is potentially well-handicapped; how well we'll find out soon. But with both horses, we'll wait to see what happens at Sandown before making any plans for Cheltenham."
The majority of today's runners are older, battle-hardened handicappers with the County Hurdle as their target. Gary Moore, as adept as Pipe at targeting these valuable prizes, is looking for something of a consolation for Numide, who was strongly fancied for last month's abandoned Totesport Trophy and before that had blundered a winning chance at Ascot away at the last.
Though Take The Breeze, another ubiquitous French-bred from the all-conquering Paul Nicholls yard, was further behind that day at Ascot, he has since won a lesser contest well under today's rider Harry Skelton, the only man to have won on him in this country and whose claim partially offsets his mount's rise in the weights. The six-year-old is still on the upgrade and appeals as each-way value.
The day at Sandown opens with another decent prize, this time for young hurdlers bred for their job rather than being recruited from the Flat. Previous winners include smart subsequent chasers like Control Man and, two years ago, Albertas Run, who contests Friday's Gold Cup.
The one who appeals most as an exciting talent, both today and for the future, is Bakbenscher (2.05), progressing steadily through the ranks with four victories, two in bumpers and two in hurdles. The grey Bob Back gelding's most recent success has been franked by two subsequent wins by his runner-up Captain Americo and his trainer Alan King could hardly be in better form.
Bakbenscher's stablemate Voy Por Ustedes heads the 12 entries left in the Ryanair Chase at yesterday's penultimate confirmation stage. The gelding, already a dual Festival winner in the Arkle Trophy and Champion Chase, as short as evens to bring up the treble in the two and a half-mile showpiece. Last year's winner Our Vic, Tidal Bay and Imperial Commander are among his chief rivals.
There is also a hotshot at the head of the market for Thursday's other Grade One contest at Cheltenham, the World Hurdle. French raider Kasbah Bliss will face a maximum of 15 rivals as he bids to go one better than his length second to now-retired Inglis Drever last year.
*Five of the 10 runners in the opening maiden hurdle at Ayr yesterday were disqualified after their riders took the wrong course after bypassing a dolled-off hurdle. The 5-2 favourite Etxalar, ridden by the 5lb claimer Campbell Gillies, passed the post first but he and the four who followed him in lost out in the stewards room. The race went to Graham Lee's mount Seraphin, first home of the only other two finishers.
Nap: Native Glen (Sandown 3.10)
NB: Sergeant Harper
Kauto Star out to regain his lost Gold Cup crown